Writing in a nutshell

II. Abbreviations

The necessity of fast writing shaped not only the appearance of letters – it also gave birth to the need for shortening expressions. The second reason for shortening them was to save writing materials. They were expensive, so they were used economically – the shorter the written text, the larger the savings. In this way, the systems of abbreviations was born (from the Latin word abbreviatio), which were particularly well developed in the middle ages.

Abbreviations used in Latin writing can be split into 3 groups, that is, shortening by:

  • cutting/suspending the ends (from the Latin per suspensionem) – in such abbreviations only the beginning of the expression remained (in some cases only the first letter remained)
  • contractions (from the Latin per contractionem) – in this case only the beginning and end of the expression were written, e.g. the first and last letters or the first, middle and last letters
  • the use of signs – the sign replaced the whole expression or its part.

The abbreviations which we use today can also be placed into these divisions, e.g.:

  1. Prof. - cutting the end
  2. Mr. - contraction
  3. & - a sign

Just as Latin writing, the systems of abbreviations also have their roots in ancient Rome. The Romans used scribal abbreviations, in other words, expressions (most frequently names) shortened in such a way that, in some cases, only the first letter is written. They also created a system of signs – the so-called Tironian notes – which were the beginning of the abbreviations used in the middle ages. Medieval scribes used a developed system of abbreviations, belonging to all the three above-mentioned groups. In texts written in national languages, some of the abbreviations were adopted from Latin, however, together with the appearance of printing and the use of paper (cheaper than parchment), abbreviations began to disappear.

If you have problems deciphering the following sentence written in the XII century with abbreviations, then you should take a look at the next page.

d[omi]n[u]s Lup[us] ep[is]c[opus] plozensis p[er] cui[us] manu[m] elemosina data e[st]


There you will find examples of abbreviations used in the middle ages, which you can meet most often. Abbreviations definitely hinder the reading of old texts, and in the event of trouble, it is worth taking a look at publications in which you can find sets of abbreviations used in various periods. The most well-known of them is Lexicon abbreviaturarum: Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane by Adriano Cappelli. You can find more bibliographic tips here: Worth reading.